Recently, I have been taking a course called Reading & Writing the Short Story. The focus of this course is on literary fiction, which is something I don’t usually enjoy. To clarify, it’s not that I don’t read literary fiction nor is it that I do not enjoy the occasional story. However, I find so much of literary fiction to be focused on the craft of storytelling, not act of telling a story.
When I was younger I developed the habit of using “50 cent” words. This habit was often confused with pretense. Some people use “50 cent” words to show that they can; it is an attempt to elevate their status. I had little awareness of status and used words that I felt were the “right” word, regardless of their commonality. It took me a while to realize that sometimes the “slightly wrong” word could communicate better than a “50 cent” word that was the “right” word.
A lot of contemporary literary fiction involves the same sort of problem. Some writers write literary fiction pretentiously. They strive for that “literary”—meaning inconsumable by the general reading population—feeling in their story. Other writers write stories with that “literary” feeling, without realizing they are actually making it more difficult to share their work with readers.
Most readers expect stories to be satisfying. With literary fiction the language and artistry of the story should also be satisfying. Also, not instead. Writers who sacrifice the story for their art lose readers and, in my opinion, have missed the point. If literary fiction is supposed to be a superior artistic expression to genre fiction, then those stories should not have to sacrifice the basics of a satisfying story to accomplish their superior artistic expression.
In the literary writing world, the distinction I’m making is often referred to as “plot-driven” versus “character-driven.” But I have found that this distinction is something of a fallacy. Yes, some genre fiction is driven by plot; and some literary fiction is driven by characters. The best fiction—literary or otherwise—is, in my opinion, driven by story. A satisfying plot without satisfying characters is not a satisfying story. Satisfying characters without a satisfying plot is not a satisfying story. In genre fiction, you can have a story that is entertaining without being satisfying—contemporary culture compares this to popcorn. Popcorn may sell well, but it doesn’t add much beyond the moment. In literary fiction, you can have a story that is artistically beautiful without being satisfying—kind of like caviar. The artistic rendering of “story” is good in small doses, but you’re going to do your aesthetic sense more harm than good if you try to read enough to satisfy your hunger.
Readers are hungry. Sometimes they do want popcorn. Sometimes they want caviar. But, they’re going to be grateful for a well-balanced meal. If you provide it, they’ll keep coming back for more.
Storytelling is a balancing act. It’s not just about the plot. It’s not just about the characters. There are actually many more elements to a good story—milieu, theme, language, style, ect. The best stories have found the perfect balance between all these elements. Some published works find some kind of balance, balancing most of these elements. Many stories fail. The writers either fail to achieve that balance or they don’t even try.
I can empathize with writers who try and fail. I can’t count how many stories I’ve written over the years where I’ve tried and failed. Writers who don’t bother to try, because they (I assume) don’t think satisfying the reader is necessary are harder for me to understand. Sure, there are stories we write for ourselves, stories we tell ourselves, stories that are not written for publication. So, if your writing is simply a self-indulgent exercise of your art, why seek to publish it? Why submit it, get it published, and force your self-indulgence on readers? Why do editors facilitate this? Why do editors select these stories for inclusion in anthologies?
It seems to me that the “literary” world is following the path of the poets—narrowing their audience further and further, until the only ones who want to read their writing is other literary writers. And then they complain about how they don’t make enough to support themselves.
Art for the sake of art alone is not expression. It fails to communicate, to share, to reach out to the audience. If all a writer does is reach within themselves, then they are not superior artists, they’re failed artists who have lost sight of what art, literary or otherwise, truly is.